There is one notion that I have that has flickered in recent years: Johnny Depp is a great actor. Not in the sense that his every film he makes is a masterpiece, but that he brings something authentic to each role. Where I've seen a handful of beloveds unable to immerse themselves in a role, it is rarely true with Depp. He can be eccentric or menacing when the role calls for it. With director Scott Cooper's Black Mass, I was hoping that audiences would get to pick up on that, especially after a long stretch of clunkers best immortalized with this year's Mortdecai. However, it is only fuel for their fire. While it isn't entirely his fault, a lot of the blame for why Black Mass is an abysmal, cliche-ridden movie falls on his shoulders. He crumbles underneath with one of his least inspired performances to date.
The subject of James "Whitey" Bulger has been the basis for a lot of pop culture. The character of Frank Costello in The Departed was largely based off of him. He is a notorious figure worthy of legend, ranking among the most iconic gangsters throughout American history. It makes sense why he would be the center of a film played by Depp, who previously did a solid performance of the similarly notorious John Dillinger (Public Enemies). The formula for success was in the cards. Yet, how does the film open? It begins with an interrogation scene involving one of Bulger's sidekicks, played by a gruff-looking Jesse Plemons. It's meant to add menace, but all it does is begin a series of contradictory problems in the narrative structure.
From the beginning, we're supposed to believe in Bulger's notoriety. He's supposed to be this figure who did time at Alcatraz and runs the streets of Boston. He has F.B.I. informants keeping him in good graces. This is all told to us through everyone but Bulger. Yet the film doesn't even commit to its choice to have an outsider's perspective, choosing to linger on personal moments of Bulger's life that are meant to enhance character, but just show how disaffected Depp's performance is. This would be fine if the various faces being interrogated on their former partner, of whom they allegedly spent time around, were actually more important to the story. This is a story of Bulger's world, and almost no other character besides the cat in the cat and mouse formula exists. Everyone serves as backdrops meant to enhance the idea that Bulger is a bad, bad man. Even his loved ones can't be bothered to have character development through more than dinner with him.
This would be fine, but there's no levity to Bulger. We don't know his past before 1975 - by which point he was already notorious. There's no knowledge of Boston's crime history to put him into a context. He's this lone figure that is supposed to be intimidating not because he does anything away from textbook, but because he likes to kill. The moments that are given dramatic emphasis are when he's ineffectually killing people out of paranoia. Where does the paranoia come from? Nobody is allowed to feel like a threat for more than the surrounding minutes of their deaths. Meanwhile, Bulger just exists with his miserable mug. There's very little feeling that he cares about his sidekicks because they get very little noticeable screen time. It distracts from the narrative largely because you are more likely to believe that Bulger was a schizophrenic who dreamed up the interrogation because of how little it makes sense.
This would be fine if the performances had value. As stated, nobody is allowed to be more than one dimensional. Joel Edgerton maybe gets some substance as the corrupt F.B.I. informant who protects Bulger. Otherwise, it's up to Depp once again to save the movie. The poor boy doesn't have it in him this time, choosing to pass off a performance more inspired by Klonopin than ambition. I don't know if Bulger was nuanced in reality. I frankly don't care. What I want is to understand why this needed to be a fictionalized story, where he is allowed to be more cinematic and menacing. For a man that would escape arrest for decades, he sure seems like the least interesting killer in history. It is only in a dinner scene where he accuses his sidekick of revealing a family recipe that we understand the potential. Depp adds menace to the monologue, convincing us that he will snap. When he doesn't, it makes the moment more jarring. Partially because it's great acting, but also because this isn't Bulger's only alleged moment of intimidation. It's just the only one that works.
For a film that is getting accused of ripping off every gangster movie throughout history, it is doing it poorly. While Cooper has proven before to replace plot with characters and still make for intriguing entertainment with Crazy Heart, he has none of the touch here. There's no great moment where Depp's murder feels more than redundant shock. The final moments don't feel like a cathartic end, but just that the writer ran out of story. It's a film that does very little with a lot. It's biggest waste is that it doesn't give the characters anything worthwhile to do. I'm sure that Bulger is far more interesting (you can watch Whitey: The United States of America vs. Whitey Bulger for evidence), and thus should at least be given that treatment. There needs to be moments to highlight his impact. Frankly, he only seems notorious to the police, and that's not a good enough excuse.
Black Mass is a great example of squandered potential. While it was billed as Depp's comeback, all it really does is show that he can play quiet characters as well. The issue is that they're not as interesting. It would've also helped if any supporting character actually had been given time to develop beyond stock outlines. While still a fictional version, The Departed is evidence of how this story could have worked. Nicholson's Costello is ripe with menace and personality that make you fear him. I don't expect Bulger to be funny or Depp to be as good as Nicholson. However, knowing that Depp has played eccentric types before, he could have given the character something more besides the menacing, killing shtick that doesn't provide anything interesting to say.